On Monday morning, author Nancy Garden died of a heart attack at the age of 76. She leaves behind her partner of 45 years, Sandy (45 years!), her golden retriever, her cats, and many heartbroken friends and fans. But she also leaves a lasting legacy in the literature world, a legacy of bravery and hope that stems from her many works, but particularly from when she first showed the world lesbian teens in a positive light with her seminal 1982 YA novel, Annie On My Mind.
Annie On My Mind was challenged and banned to such an extent that it was even BURNED during demonstrations in a Kansas City school system, where it was banned in the early ‘90s. The sweet story of two girls falling in love was so repulsive that folks needed to literally destroy it to ashes. The book was eventually returned to the shelves after a student-led lawsuit that ended up costing the district $200,000, which shows once again that kids are usually smarter than adults, and adults are good at wasting money.
Garden continued to write profusely and be a kind but passionate voice against censorship right up until her death, winning countless accolades and awards, including the American Library Association’s prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award for lasting and significant contributions to the world of children’s and YA literature. As friend Gregory Maguire commented on Victoria Brownworth’s fantastic and tears-inducing tribute to Garden on Lambda Literary yesterday, “How the cheery and humble can tilt at giants, and defeat them, all without malice, only compassion and a love of justice. “
Annie On My Mind was not only the first mainstream YA LGBT novel to be a success in America; it remains a success today. It continues to be reprinted, checked out of libraries, and stocked on bookstore shelves, more than 30 years after its publication. This is a feat for any novel, let alone one that openly shares its content on its cover: two girls, bashful yet with a serious intensity, holding hands. The dedication Nancy Garden included on its first pages reads, simply, perfectly, “For all of us.” And it remains so.
YA has attracted a lot of attention this year, not just on the interwebs but in highfalutin places like Time and the New Yorker and, this week, even on The Colbert Report, as if YA is a new phenomenon that people either feel the need to applaud or wring their hands over. Nevermind that YA authors have been churning out meaningful stories, and often turning those stories into blockbuster movies, for decades. The only reason everyone seems hyper-aware at the moment is because a prominent and respected man (John Green) is having such a rockstar moment with it. But throughout history, women have quietly been taking the risks, carrying the genre forward, making history, and selling extraordinary amounts of books. (And, as Kelly Jensen points out, getting censored a lot more while doing it. From the first book that was authentically considered YA, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, to Nancy Garden, to J.K. Rowling, women have been changing and saving lives, not just of teenagers but of all humans, documenting realities others are scared of and taking us to worlds we couldn’t previously imagine. Any important YA timeline that doesn’t include Annie On My Mind is remiss, and I would be remiss to not make Annie On My Mind the obvious choice for our July book club.
While I’ve read other works of Nancy’s, strangely enough, I haven’t read Annie myself yet, even though she’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I’m sorry that it took this tragic event to finally make me crack open its spine. But I really hope that you’ll join me in either reading it for the first time, re-reading it, or just joining in on the discussion as we honor both the book and the woman who gave it to us.
After I post the discussion for June’s current book club pick, The Gravity Between Us, later this week, I’ll start a thread for Annie On My Mind on our Goodreads page. Join in there, or wait until the end of July, when I’ll post a discussion for Annie here on the site.
Rest in peace, Nancy, and thanks for making the world a kinder, warmer, and less lonely place for so many.